Twelve pieces of sculpture are on view. Their number is not symbolic in any way, although the title is puzzling. The objects were first worked up or “moulded” with a computer programme as virtual models. Then individual layers of solid wood were selected and glued together to make up the required, or even larger than necessary, volume of material. These were next milled away with a router to obtain the desired shape. Finally, they were divided into groups and encased in aquarium-like enclosures. Their details are picked out by lighting and set off against a background of walls painted a dark colour.
The entire sequence of actions by their creator Alexey Pankin — from production through naming — follows a train of logic in which the loss of any single element would be damaging. Extracting anything would cause a break in the rhythm which runs through material form in order to reach the plane of what we might call a thought-form. This makes the meaning appear as a reflection of the material structure, which through all of its components has sensual aspects. This happens if the viewpoint ranges from craft and form to art and content. But from a viewpoint in reverse, the visible volume of form is a kind of flattened shadow from the work’s invisible volume, which consists of its design, the experience of producing it, and a web of associations and the weighty accumulation of cultural influences. This pair of counterpoised perspectives allows us to see this project as echo-like, a matched duality with a mirror-image structure.
What exactly is all this substantive-semantic sequence about? What can the meaning be of a work that, instead of enticing and explaining, quite simply fuses meaning with the substance it was given? The title might be a logical starting point from which to work out an explanation of meaning, but the title itself, which ultimately grew into the work, would also need some explanation.
Pankin’s title for the project is a verbal fragment from “He feels at home in the May beetle song” in which the only thing that can be made out at first is a strange, yet utterly clear, transmedial call-and-response between the acoustical plasticity and the plasticity of the sculptural ensemble itself. He named the work as a response to it. In other words, the name in an odd way suits its bearer. And it is a quotation from Paul Celan which in turn (continuing the reverberation as the transmedial becomes the transpersonal) is drawn from an old German lullaby of either the seventeenth or eighteenth century (and therefore from the era either of the Thirty Years’ War or the Seven Years’ War) with a soothing melody that smashes into a quatrain full of unbearable sorrow.
The song makes a reference to Pomerania (“blackened by flame”: darkness from light), and Celan in his own poem addresses its inhabitant, an exile scorched by fire who has only a heart-breaking lullaby for children in place of home and homeland. More precisely, the song does not replace home, but it is home to him, a place like a bubble of remembrance that he dwells within because being inside it is precious to him and comfortable like no other contingent haven — just as it was precious to Celan (in still another resonance) who as an exile was writing about himself as a Pomeranian.
The enduring echo of likenesses seems to be reached only here, at a vast distance from the dozen original pieces of sculpture, where it finally attains the plane of its reflection. From there one can survey the entire objectified, intelligible arrangement through which the vibrations pass. At its extreme, it laps against the far boundaries of European history itself. However, that occurs only at the extreme because home is not in reality a building always engulfed in flame, but merely a children’s song, which is a veil using the illusory patterns of culture to shield life from the darkness outside.
Culture is something less than history, merely a fragment of it, and yet is its perfect image. To speak in more precise and paradoxical terms, however, culture is imperfect because the fragmentation of culture with respect to history entails its incompleteness and “imperfection”. But it follows that culture as a perfected image can be exactly that, although the image remains imperfect. Or as Giorgio Agamben, to whom Pankin often alludes, would say, “this is not formal perfection but quite the opposite: preservation of the potentiality to act, the salvation of imperfection in a perfect form.”
Before the exhibition, an interviewer asked Pankin, “Why are all [your sculptures] deformed?” His answer was: “[They] all have missing limbs: classical antiquity. Classical sculpture’s lack of limbs set the standard of antiquity and beauty for us. If you put all the arms back, the sculpture disappears. Sculpture without limbs is eternity.” In this way he is placing a profound personal interpretation on the principle of deformation, which has been a mainstay of twentieth-century art as its analytical and strategic gateway to devising shapes while rejecting the principle of mimesis from earlier art. Deformation here is actually emulation and in the loftiest sense: emulation of antiquity. This emulative deformation is of a contra-analytic (synthetic) order used to restore the connection with the ideal and eternity, which are synonymous for Pankin. That is, decrease (imperfection, deformation, analysis, deconstruction) is increase (growth through emulation, synthesis, movement toward perfection), a retreat into the depths of history and the “preservation of the potentiality” to move ahead into the future while emulating the past.
The underlying principle is always the same: the push and pull of reciprocating dynamics; the image is of an echo that resounds from a “golden age”. It is of no consequence that in reality the sculpture of those times was multi-coloured and had all the limbs attached. That sculpture was never the basis for the European tradition in art; it arose exclusively from the white marble ruins inherited from the wonderful period which two thousand years later gave birth to Winkelmann’s utopia of “noble simplicity and calm grandeur”. It is culture, not history, that is real for us, who know very well that “Olympus is only a hill” (as Alain Badiou, another of Pankin’s favourites would say). This is because the reality of history is extremely remote, crudely material and abstract, while the reality of beholding the living marble of an ancient statue is an experience of almost tactile approach to the ideal, to another sensual kind of transgression that measures our infinitesimal being against the immense scale of eternity.
That universal scale, or in Pankin’s words “questions of the genealogies of embodiment, the long history of representing the body”, is what generates the urge to make sculpture. Nevertheless, everything mentioned up to now is, of course, mediated through a near-at-hand prototype, through things lesser, nearby, and on a personal scale: Pankin’s wife was the model for some of the sculptures “because that body was the nearest and most available.” That nearest body, the intimate and tactile experience, found a visual correlate that in turn sets off distancing. But at its starting point it is altogether tactilely and indivisibly near at hand, and therefore this “near-at-hand” is preserved over any distance linking the very nearest with the farthest. The tactile contact is preserved in visual resemblance in the same way that visual similarity discloses itself as a non-visual, semantic equivalent. The wave that recedes into the distance eventually returns to the starting point compacting everything encompassed in its back-and-forth motion into a circle of universal connection and a series of correspondences.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote movingly about this. In discussing the early photographic portraits that seemed so incredibly realistic to people at the time, she said that “It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases — but the association and the sense of nearness....” However, because the topic here was the impact of something visual rather than of a tactile object, the description went from sight to touch and so contracted the distance instead of increasing it. Walter Benjamin at a later date was describing the same mimetic effect and artistic magic in general, which he called an aura and explained in the opposite way as “the unique appearance or semblance of distance, no matter how close [the object] may be.” What Barrett Browning’s and Benjamin’s writings have in common is the same unbreakable connection, or even transmutation, between the tactile and the visual or the near and far.
Returning to what is most important for him in the art of sculpture, Pankin said, “I am concerned with how ‘body’ senses itself today in view of the ‘numbness’ induced by the way that everything in the culture from before is now in simultaneous existence. In these figures, a reduction and hypertrophy of classical standards come into contact with stiffness, limping, bad posture, dizziness, alienation and not knowing how to play the guitar.” In fact, if art for Pankin turns out to be a space in which “everything” from nearby to that farthest distance is actualized, then its immense gravitational pull would make even the idea of ancient kalokagathia inconceivable. In its place would be not an ideal but a mature, even decrepit, dialectical kind of imperfection (insufficiency and defectiveness or inability) serving as a model which uncloaks an otherworldly possibility of movement and the potential to reverse becoming. It is hidden in the mutable protrusions and cavities of three-dimensional form, which ends abruptly in a sharp outline like the edge of the ancients’ flat earth. However, this comes about only in order to have the dynamics at that edge turn into an expression of the line — or it requires only a single change in viewing angle for modelled volume to be traced out in a plane. And that line turns itself into a small likeness of a mountain ridge spreading into the waves of its slopes.
Just as the material structure of the ensemble requires meaning in response and the semantic cocoon of the title, so too must the statuary dynamics require the static mode of its otherness. And this new project gathers the sculptures into framed groups. It would seem that the framing reduces to a minimum the access of sculpture to the fate of life, the dance of its volume reduces it to an illusion of flat ornamentation. But that is only how it “would seem” and an “illusion” because in fact the multi-dimensional is not reduced to one dimension, but instead is augmented by an additional dimension. Bodily reduction and the deformation of perfect simplicity turns into a complexity that is accessible to the imperfect if only because the undeformed, intact contemporary “body is simple, like a sliver of soap. And deformation creates a collision, a plastic form, a sense of love as it assists in accumulating effort.... Through deformation you can work out a dialectical hierarchy of body parts.”
In a certain sense, all this is consistent with what Hans Bellmer said in arguing that “the [female] body is like an endless sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams.” Only here the “female body” is of use to Pankin solely for initiating the transformation of physical material into the formal and linguistic. All of its subsequent guises are beyond differentiation by gender. The semantic substrate in it is precisely the material content of this sculpture and also its home.